2005 Berlinale most middle-of-the road in years

BERLIN — If last year’s Berlinale looked good on paper and generally turned out well, at this year’s edition (Feb. 10-20) the 22-pic Competition stubbornly refused to catch fire.

Except for those slipping on ice, none of the media were doing cartwheels along the postmodern avenues of Potsdamer Platz. Faced with a mixed bag offering little to set the pulses racing, the general mood among the 3,000-plus journos was one of stoic clock-punching.

Call it Competition by committee. Overall, it was the most muted, middle-of-the road Berlinale in years, with even the Panorama sidebar producing few critical discoveries and practically none emerging from the newly slimmed-down Intl. Forum of New Cinema.

Especially in the Competition, the fest showed signs of increasingly paying lip service to social problems without finding pics that translated the subject matter into satisfying drama. However, packed public screenings suggested even traditionally activist Berliners were getting exactly what they wanted.

Prior to the fest, director Dieter Kosslick had made no excuses for some 60% of his program coming from Europe. But unlike last year, his selection, lightly sprinkled with debuts, and heavier this year on fest faves (most of whom flubbed), hardly reflected the livelier side of the region’s filmmaking talent.

A natural caution in Kosslick’s makeup, stemming from his long background as a film Eurocrat, seems to have reasserted itself in his choices, with no titles taking the big leap toward new frontiers.

Even the potentially most controversial pic, Palestinian Hany Abu-Assad’s smoothly helmed, Euro-financed “Paradise Now,” centered on two suicide bombers, was de-fanged by trying to cover all the bases in a something-for-everyone way.

Most intellectually meaty fare on show was French helmer Robert Guediguian’s “The Last Mitterrand,” with a captivating tour de force by vet Michel Bouquet as the sly Gallic prez.

On the emotional side, the most substantial meal was provided by Jacques Audiard’s “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” a French retooling of James Toback’s 1977 thriller “Fingers,” with Romain Duris powerfully reincarnating the Harvey Keitel role.

Between these two poles was a spread of fare that reflected social/political issues but without much real animation or originality: race (opener “Man to Man”), German WWII martyrdom (“Sophie Scholl: The Final Days”), kaleidoscopic European life (“One Day in Europe”) and African genocide (“Hotel Rwanda,” HBO co-prod “Sometimes in April”). Only the last-minute Hungarian selection, d.p. Lajos Koltai’s directorial debut “Fateless,” brought a bravely lyrical treatment to the horrors of the Holocaust.

For the U.S., it was also a muted Berlinale, with Sundance entry “Thumbsucker” reckoned OK and Dennis Quaid starrer “In Good Company” ditto.

Pop-out titles in other sections also were fewer. However, Panorama produced a marketable item in Andreas Dresen’s beautifully tooled dramedy “Willenbrock”; a real crowd pleaser in the “Amelie”-like romantic comedy “Mars” by Azerbaijan-born first-timer Anna Melikian; and an ultra-droll Austrian discovery in Wolfgang Murnberger’s “Silentium.”

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